11 DECEMBER 1993, Page 9


Anne Applebaum on how the Arab-Israeli

peace accord has deepened the divides within Israel

Jerusalem `DO YOU know where we are?' Ilit asked me. I did not; through the window I saw closed shops, darkened houses, street signs in Arabic.

`We are just entering Jericho, a place which will become the scene of great chaos on 13 December,' her husband answered. If you hear a loud noise and see a rock fly through the window, please lower your head while I and the gentleman in the back take care of the matter.' He laughed, and

tightened his grip around the pistol which lay on the hand-rest beside him; everyone in the van laughed too.

'Aren't you afraid,' he continued, `to be travel- ling with Jewish extrem- ists? That's what we are called by the Israeli media: Jewish extrem- ists. Or perhaps you would rather be with Arab extremists? If you would rather, you can get out here.' More laughter: 'Well, if you prefer to stay with us, then you are normal at least. More normal, any- way, than some Israelis.'

We drove on, along a road where a Palestinian gunman of uncertain provenance had mur- dered an Israeli commuter the day before, through the occupied West Bank, where more than 120,000 Israelis have settled since the land was captured in 1967, up towards the Golan Heights, where 15,000 other Israelis have built small towns and settlements in that same time. This month the settlers are the villains of the peace process, pictured on television protesting against change, squabbling with Arabs or even with other Jews. Not long ago, they were heroes. 'We are not criminals,' a woman in Malle Levona, a settlement deep in the West Bank, had told me the previous day. 'Not at all. Everything was legal when

we came here, the government wanted us to come here. We didn't steal anything.'

Even if they came originally because of cheap land and houses, the handful that I met, whether religious or not, now see themselves as Zionist pioneers on a mis- sion. They may be doctors or lawyers com- muting to Tel Aviv, but 'life here is more meaningful,' explained one of the passen- gers in the van; danger, whether on the road to the Golan or in the West Bank set- tlements, is a natural part of the package.

The founders of Israel fought the Arabs for the land, and so do they.

Along with their sense that life has meaning, they also have a clear vision of Israel's future as a modern revival of an ancient state. Their right to live in Hebron or East Jerusalem comes from the bible; their convictions are reinforced by nearly three decades of residence. In the Golan, one is shown trees planted and houses built since 1967, a water-bottling plant (it sup- plies American troops in Somalia) and a film about Gamla, a Jewish town which fell to the Romans after valiant battle in 67AD. Now there is a new Israeli settlement in the same place: `Gamla shall not fall again,' proclaimed the announcer at the end. Sev- eral women in the Golan have begun to wear imitations of ancient coins marked with Hebrew letters (of the sort found at the Gamla dig) on chains around their necks. 'It is because we are under siege once 'more,' one of them told me. Oxford or Harvard, both believe they have common interests in peace, and both speak of joint invitations to conferences, of lec- tureships at one another's universities, of jokes exchanged around negotiating tables. `They have a Jewish sense of humour,' mar- velled one Israeli negotiator.

Instead of building a pioneer state, many of these Israelis are already living in anoth- er sort of Israeli society, one which dreams of a Middle Eastern Economic Community (MEEC, perhaps), and is right now busy calculating what will happen to the eco- nomic indicators if the Arab nations lift their boycott of Israel. All over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, one is handed pamphlets describing the benefits (for both sides) of Arab-Israeli trade, books of statistics explaining this year's stock-market boom and next year's explosion of new jobs. One hears that Israel will become the Singapore of the Middle East, that the Negev desert, or perhaps the Jerusalem suburbs, will become the next Silicon Valley. One hears that the occupation of the territories was very expensive, politically time-consuming, and corrupting; with peace, Israel will be able to channel its energy into other things. Israel will become normal.

Israel might even, some hope, become dull. On a quiet Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, a long-standing member of the Israeli peace movement described his ideal Israel, an Israel without enemies: sun, sand, blonde Swedish tourists, a sort of pagan Greek island plus camels.

I asked him whether he wouldn't find this boring, after so many years of war and politics. 'Boring, no,' he said, leaning back in his chair. 'On the contrary, the addiction to politics is boring. I will be much happier, and I will have much more free time, when I live in a country which foreigners do not find interesting.'

Of course this debate, between those who live for ideas and those who wish to be free of them, is hardly new in Israel; on the contrary, the subject feels worn out and tired, which is hardly surprising — discus- sion of the occupied territories has been going on for 27 years — and it is linked to other old debates, between religious and secular Jews, Oriental and European Jews, between those who believe Israel is a Mid- dle Eastern country and those who believe it belongs to the European Mediterranean. Nor is it even remotely as two-sided as described here. On both sides there are factions and sub-factions, women who wear hats and women who wear headscarves, men who wear black skullcaps and men who wear multicoloured ones.

It is also possible to meet people who search for a middle ground, Israelis who talk about 'recapturing idealism for the mainstream', people who want to build houses in the Negev, for example, instead of the West Bank. 'I am a pioneer,' one Galilean told me, proudly pointing to the suburban family houses he had helped to build into the low hills. But Zionist ideal- ism now takes other forms as well. In Jerusalem, I met a Jewish woman who spends her time bringing Arab and Israeli children together in art classes; they often start by painting one another's portraits.

Nevertheless, the big divide exists, how- ever tiring it may be. Ask Israelis about the withdrawal from the West Bank — due to begin on 13 December — and it possible to hear how the peace process is making the divisions within Israel more acute.

To start with, the decision to talk to the PLO has not affected both groups in the same way. On the contrary, a few days after the Israeli Prime Minister shook the hand of the PLO chairman in Washington, an Israeli journalist walked through Tel Aviv wearing a T-shirt featuring a photograph of Yasser Arafat. Nothing happened. From one day to the next, people had accepted that the enemy, whose flag could not be flown and whose name could not be men- tioned the week before, was now an accept- able negotiating partner. Mediterranean Israel is an immigrant society, and it toler- ates change. For the settlers, on the other hand, the withdrawal represents catastro- phe: the loss of their homes, the abandon- ing of the vision. 'Rabin must have been drunk when he shook that man's hand,' one woman in Malle Levona told me, gen- uinely perplexed. 'No normal person would behave that way.'

The factions have also lost their joint enemy. With the need to compromise, to accept imperfect solutions, the common ground between the two camps has shrunk. They are growing more suspicious of one another, to judge by the attitudes they strike if they believe you to belong to the other side. My weekend in the Golan Heights, for example, almost began badly: having graciously invited me to stay, my hostess expressed some reservations when I called to confirm the plans.

`I am told that The Spectator is a left- wing newspaper,' she said. 'I don't want to have anyone left-wing staying in my house.' Since Left and Right don't seem to mean here quite what they mean in Europe Left means the people who want to give the occupied territories to the Palestinians, and Right means the people who oppose that policy — I was somewhat at a loss. As far as I am aware, The Spectator's editorial board has not participated in this debate.

`All right,' she said finally, 'perhaps I am wrong.' The invitation stood, the hospitality was absolute. But when I told the story to another Israeli of a different political per- suasion, he looked at me, amazed. 'And why didn't you just say "thank you very much", put the phone down, and go some- where else for the weekend? How could you stay with people like that?'

If discussions of peace have made the divide within Israel more acute, the divide itself will also make the peace process more difficult. It appears, for example, to have infected what should be a completely separate discussion of defence and strategy in Israel — where will the borders be, how will the troops withdraw, is Israel being treated fairly by other Arab states, is it a good idea to deal with Arafat rather than the Palestinians who live on the West Bank? — at least if one can measure the problem by the annoyance of those who are trying to conduct this discussion. An Israeli academic, a specialist in strategic affairs, complained that nobody was listen- ing to him. 'It drives me crazy,' he said, 'the arguments in the newspapers are all exis- tential and emotional, not strategic: either you believe the future of Israel depends on keeping the holy places, or you believe that the Israeli state will perish if we don't cre- ate an independent Palestine next week.' It is true that a question about the peace pro- cess here is as likely to produce a long solil- oquy about the state of the nation as it is to produce a careful analysis of the pros and cons of withdrawal.

But although it makes for good conversa- tions, a never-ending national existential crisis hardly makes for stability: if Israel were 'normal', after all, Israelis wouldn't talk so much about normality, and if the Israeli state had already been defined, no one would be arguing about its qualities. Perhaps that is why it takes only a few days in Israel for the peace process, which seems so inevitable when viewed from the out- side, to seem terribly fragile and fraught with complications. For anyone who wishes to derail it, for example, there is no need to wage a full-scale war; all one would have to do is toss a bomb at a settler, perhaps one or two every week, and then sit back and watch as Israeli opinion shifted (and it has begun to do so) back towards sympathy for glamorous pioneers. Among the Palestini- ans — who have their own equally bitter existential divisions — there are many who know this to be true and will be happy to exploit it.

Exchanging glamour for compromise and revolution for negotiation will not be attractive to anybody. Even the PLO will have to exchange their houses in Tunis for the refugee camps of Gaza, where they will have to deliver water, electricity and jobs — which is why peace in the Middle East will not follow the collapse of communism with historic inevitability. Within both Israel and the newly autonomous Palestine, life without the enemy will be in some ways more difficult. The Palestinians must make themselves into a country, and Israel will finally have to decide what kind of country it is. And even if one side or the other seems to be winning the argument today, they might not be winning it tomorrow: timescales are different in the Middle East. On the road back to Jerusalem, I asked another driver, this one without a gun, what he thought was going to happen. He shrugged. 'It is very easy for me. I believe in the Bible. The Bible says that the Jews are promised Judaea and Samaria — the West Bank. So we will have them. But God didn't say when.'